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De Minimis Defense Doesn’t Protect Minimal Use of Concededly Infringing Material

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a copyright case based on a “minimal usage” or de minimis use defense. Richard N. Bell v. Wilmott Storage Services, LLC, et al., Case Nos. 19-55882, -56181 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Wardlaw, J.) (Clifton, J., and Choe-Groves, J., concurring).

Richard Bell took a photo of the Indianapolis skyline and published it on various websites. Eleven years later, he registered the photo with the US Copyright Office. Bell later conducted an online reverse image search of his photo to identify potential infringers and subsequently filed more than 100 copyright infringement lawsuits. One of the sites on which Bell found the photo was VisitUSA.com. The image was only available to those who had conducted a reverse image search or knew the precise web address to the photo. Wilmott Storage Services purchased VisitUSA.com in 2012. In 2018, Bell notified Wilmott that it was displaying the photo without his permission. Wilmott removed the photo in response to Bell’s request. In 2019, Wilmott continued to display a copy of the photo, but at a slightly different address than before. Wilmott explained that its webmaster was supposed to remove the photo but instead only changed the file name. Wilmott subsequently removed the photo.

Bell sued Wilmott for copyright infringement in 2018, asserting that Wilmott infringed his right to “display the copyrighted work publicly” by making it accessible to the public on Wilmott’s server. Assuming infringement, Wilmott filed for summary judgment based on the affirmative defenses of de minimis use, fair use and the statute of limitations. The district court granted summary judgment to Wilmott on the de minimis use defense. Although Wilmott conceded that an identical copy of the photo was hosted on its server, the district court found no infringement. Bell appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that it had not previously addressed the issue of whether one “publicly displays” a work where it is accessible only to members of the public who either possess the specific pinpoint address or who perform a particular type of online search—here, a reverse image search. Applying Ninth Circuit precedent from Perfect 10, the Court concluded that Wilmott publicly displayed the photo.

The Ninth Circuit also found that there was no place for an inquiry into whether there was de minimis copying because the “degree of copying” was total since the infringing work was an identical copy of the copyrighted photo. The Court explained that it and a majority of other circuits do not view the de minimis doctrine as a defense to infringement but rather as an answer to the inquiry whether an infringing work and copyrighted work are substantially similar so as to make the copying actionable. The Court reiterated that the de minimis defense applies to the amount of copying, not to the extent of the defendant’s use of the infringing work. The Court also explained that the de minimis copying defense is [...]

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NDA Sunset Provision Means Trade Secret Use May Not Be Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court ruling in a trade secret misappropriation case based on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that resulted in an award of more than $60 million, ruling that any disclosures that occurred after the termination date of the NDA were not subject to misappropriation claims. BladeRoom Group Ltd. v. Emerson Electric Co., Case No. 19-16583 (9th Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Rawlinson, J., concurring).

BladeRoom and Emerson compete for contracts to design and build data centers. In August 2011, the companies explored a potential sale of BladeRoom to Emerson. BladeRoom drafted an NDA governed by English law, and the parties signed it. Critically, the 12th paragraph of the NDA provided that “this agreement shall terminate on the date 2 years from the date hereof.” The potential acquisition ultimately fell through.

Not long after, Facebook began plans to build a data center in northern Sweden. BladeRoom pitched a design in July 2012, and Emerson pitched a design several months later. In October 2012, Facebook verbally approved Emerson’s design although it was only 10% complete. Almost a year later, Facebook contacted BladeRoom asking about updates to its proposal. In November 2013, Facebook selected Emerson’s proposal. Facebook and Emerson signed a design-build contract in March 2014, at which point BladeRoom learned about the design Emerson had pitched. BladeRoom sued Facebook and Emerson, alleging that Emerson had breached the NDA and misappropriated BladeRoom’s trade secrets.

The case was tried to a jury. During trial, BladeRoom settled with Facebook but not Emerson. Before closing arguments, Emerson proposed a jury instruction excluding information disclosed or used after August 2013 (i.e., after the NDA allegedly expired). The district court denied the instruction. BladeRoom then moved in limine to prohibit Emerson from arguing that the NDA permitted it to use BladeRoom’s information after August 2013. The district court granted the motion. The jury found Emerson liable and awarded $10 million in lost profits and $20 million in unjust enrichment damages but did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims in making its award. The district court awarded $30 million in punitive damages and further awarded pre-judgment interest beginning on October 30, 2012, and $18 million in attorney’s and expert witness’ fees. Emerson appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first considered whether the NDA expired after two years. Applying English law, the Court held that it did based on a primarily textual analysis. However, the Court could not determine from the record the date on which the alleged breach/misappropriation had occurred. Accordingly, it vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

The Ninth Circuit also discussed several issues in the appeal that would be relevant if Emerson was found liable on remand. The Court stated that the punitive damages award was not supported by the record where the jury did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims because punitive damages are not available for breach of contract under California law. The Court also discussed prejudgment interest, observing [...]

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Foreign Company’s Purposeful US Activities Blemishes Lack of Personal Jurisdiction Defense

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a complaint, finding that the foreign defendant was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in the United States in light of the defendant’s marketing, sales and operations, each of which reflected a significant focus on the United States. Ayla, LLC v. Alya Skin Pty. Ltd., Case No. 20-16214 (9th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Rakoff, J.)

Ayla is a beauty and wellness brand based in the San Francisco area that offers skincare and hair products through retail and online sales, as well as health and personal care advice on its website. Ayla has three registered trademarks “for use of the ‘AYLA’ word mark in connection with on-site beauty services, online retail beauty products and cosmetics services, and cosmetics.” Alya Skin is a skincare company with its place of incorporation and principal place of business in Australia. Alya Skin sells and ships its products worldwide but about 10% of its total sales are made to the United States.

Alleging a “confusingly similar” mark on its products and advertisements, Ayla sued Alya Skin for trademark infringement and false designation of origin pursuant to the Lanham Act, as well as unfair competition under the California Business & Professions Code and California common law. Alya Skin moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction. The district court granted Alya Skin’s motion to dismiss, finding that it did not have personal jurisdiction. Ayla appealed.

On appeal, Ayla challenged the district court’s determination that it did not have nationwide jurisdiction over Alya Skin under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 4(k)(2). The Ninth Circuit framed the issue on appeal as a question of whether the district court “erroneously held that the exercise of nationwide jurisdiction over Alya Skin does not comport with due process.” The Court noted that the due process analysis under 4(k)(2) is “nearly identical” to the traditional personal jurisdiction analysis but “rather than considering contacts between [the defendant] and the forum state, we consider contacts with the nation as a whole.” Because trademark infringement is “treated as tort-like for personal jurisdiction purposes,” the Court focused its specific jurisdiction analysis on whether Alya Skin “purposefully directed its activities toward the United States.”

The Ninth Circuit’s inquiry focused on a totality analysis surrounding Alya Skin’s marketing, sales and operations, each of which reflected a significant focus on the United States. The Court noted that Alya Skin promoted its allegedly infringing products specifically to US individuals through “significant advertising efforts.” These efforts included, for example, an Instagram post directly referencing the “USA,” Alya Skin’s advertising efforts during “Black Friday” and Alya Skin’s reference on its website that its products were featured in US magazines. Moreover, Alya Skin presented to consumers “that its products are FDA approved,” which the Court found to be “an appeal specifically to American consumers for whom the acronym ‘FDA’ has meaning.” The Court also noted that Alya Skin’s volume of sales reflected a purposeful direction toward the United States.

[...]

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Unhappy Together: No Right of Public Performance under California Copyright Law

Addressing for the first time whether California law establishes a right of public performance for the owners of pre-1972 sound recordings, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found no such right for music and overturned a district court’s grant of partial summary judgment. Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., Case No. 17-55844 (9th Cir. Aug. 23, 2021) (Lee, J.)

In 1971, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the rock band the Turtles formed Flo & Eddie to control the band’s song rights, including the hit song “Happy Together.” In 2013, Flo & Eddie filed a complaint alleging a violation of California common law and statutory copyright law arising out of Sirius XM’s playing of songs to which Flo & Eddie control the rights. Based on California’s copyright statute (Cal. Civ. Code § 980), Flo & Eddie argued that California law gave it the “exclusive ownership” of its pre-1972 songs—including the right of public performance—which required compensation whenever Flo & Eddie’s copyrighted recordings were publicly performed.

The district court granted partial summary judgment to Flo & Eddie in 2014, finding that California law protected sound recording owners’ right of public performance by granting “exclusive ownership” to the music, and therefore, Sirius XM must pay for playing pre-1972 music. The district court reasoned that “the plain meaning of having ‘exclusive ownership’ in a sound recording is having the right to use and possess the recording to the exclusion of others,” and further explained that there is “nothing in that phrase to suggest that the legislature intended to exclude any right or use of the sound recording from the concept of ‘exclusive ownership.’” The district court looked to individual dictionary definitions of the words “exclusive” and “ownership” to craft a broad meaning for the phrase “exclusive ownership,” ultimately finding that it must include the “right of public performance.” Sirius XM appealed.

In an opinion artfully embroidered with classic rock references, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred in finding that “exclusive ownership” under § 980(a)(2) included the right of public performance and remanded for entry of judgment consistent with the parties’ contingent settlement agreement. The Court faulted the district court’s dictionary-based approach to statutory interpretation, instructing that “[d]ictionaries and tools of grammatical construction can help determine plain meaning of specific words, but some phrases have a separate or more specialized ‘term of art’ meaning that cannot be stripped away from its historical context or subject matter area.” To that end, the Court took an expressly textualist approach to interpreting California’s law, looking back to common law in the 19th century when California first used the term “exclusive ownership” in its copyright statute in order to inform the understanding of that term as used at the time.

Based on this inquiry, the Ninth Circuit found that there was no recognized right of public performance for music and that California only protected unpublished works. The Court explained the distinction, stating that “[c]ommon law provides a perpetual copyright [...]

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Absent Proof of Government Ownership on an EEA Sovereign Immunity Defense is All Black and White

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss an indictment, charging four Chinese companies with violations of the criminal provisions of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) and finding no sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in view of the defendant’s commercial activities and failure of proof. United States of America v. Pangang Group Company Ltd. et al., Case No. 19-10306 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Collins, J.)

No company in China had been able to develop a clean and efficient technology to produce titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in products such as paints, sunscreen, lotions, paper and plastics. A group of related Chinese steel companies (collectively, the Pangang companies) wanted to obtain such technology.

In the United States, after many years of research and development, DuPont had managed to develop a process to produce titanium dioxide and was unwilling to sell or license the technology to Chinese companies. Chinese government officials approached US businessman and former DuPont research engineer Walter Liew to obtain DuPont’s trade secrets. Liew agreed to become a corporate spy and managed to gain access to DuPont’s technology. Liew unlawfully transferred the trade secrets to the Pangang companies. The Pangang companies also conspired with unknown computer hackers to access DuPont’s computers to further steal DuPont’s trade secrets.

The Pangang companies were indicted on one count of conspiring to commit economic espionage for the benefit of a foreign government or instrumentality to steal DuPont’s trade secrets and one count of attempting to commit such economic espionage in violation of the EEA. The Pangang companies pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss a criminal indictment for violations of the EEA, arguing that they were “instrumentalities” of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and were entitled to sovereign immunity under the FSIA. The district court denied the motion, holding that the Pangang companies were not immune in light of the FSIA’s commercial activity and waiver exceptions. The Pangang companies appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the Pangang companies failed to show that they were instrumentalities of a foreign sovereign within the meaning of the FSIA. For a company to be considered a foreign instrumentality under FSIA, a government must own the majority shares in the company. The indictment included several allegations about the ownership structure of the Pangang companies. The indictment alleged that the Pangang Group Company was a “state-owned enterprise controlled by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council” (SASAC), a “special government agency” of the PRC. The other Pangang companies were alleged to be direct or indirect “subsidiaries” of the Pangang Group Company. The Ninth Circuit found that the allegations, taken as true, affirmatively negated the premise that the other Pangang companies could be considered agencies or instrumentalities of the PRC because the indictment described all three of these entities as being “subsidiaries” of the fourth defendant (i.e., the Pangang Group Company). Because the corporate law [...]

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Supreme Court to Consider Whether 17 U.S.C. § 411 Requires Referral to Copyright Office

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to review whether a district court is required to request that the Register of Copyrights advise whether inaccurate information, if known, would have caused the Register to refuse registration of the plaintiff’s asserted copyright. Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., Case No. 20-915 (Supr. Ct. June 1, 2021) (certiorari granted). The question presented is:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit erred in breaking with its own prior precedent and the findings of other circuits and the Copyright Office in holding that 17 U.S.C. § 411 requires referral to the Copyright Office where there is no indicia of fraud or material error as to the work at issue in the subject copyright registration.

In the circuit court decision, Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P. (9th Cir. May 29, 2020), the Ninth Circuit held that once a defendant alleges that (1) a plaintiff’s certificate of registration contains inaccurate information, (2) “the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration” and (3) the inaccurate information was included on the application “with knowledge that it was inaccurate,” a district court is required to submit a request to the Register of Copyrights “to advise the court whether the inaccurate information, if known, would have caused [it] to refuse registration.”




Don’t Count Your Lamborghinis Before Your Trademark is in Use

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment, finding that a trademark registrant had alleged infringement of its trademark without having engaged in bona fide use of the trademark in commerce, as required by the Lanham Act. The Court found no material issue of fact as to whether the registrant had used the mark in commerce in a manner to properly secure registration, and the alleged infringer therefore was entitled to cancellation of the registration. Social Technologies LLC v. Apple Inc., Case No. 320-15241 (9th Cir. July 13, 2021) (Restani, J., sitting by designation)

This dispute traces back to a 2016 intent-to-use US trademark application filed by Social Technologies for the mark MEMOJI in connection with a mobile phone software application. After filing its application, Social Technologies engaged in some early-stage activities to develop a business plan and seek investors. On June 4, 2018, Apple announced its own MEMOJI software, acquired from a third party, that allowed users to transform images of themselves into emoji-style characters. At that date, Social Technologies had not yet written any code for its own app and had engaged only in promotional activities for the planned software.

Apple’s MEMOJI announcement triggered Social Technologies to rush to develop its MEMOJI app, which it launched three weeks later (although system bugs caused the app to be removed promptly from the Google Play Store). Social Technologies then used that app launch to submit a statement of use for its trademark application in order to secure registration of the MEMOJI trademark. The record also showed that over the course of those three weeks, Social Technologies’ co-founder and president sent several internal emails urging acceleration of the software development in preparation to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against Apple, writing to the company’s developers that it was “[t]ime to get paid, gentlemen,” and to “[g]et your Lamborghini picked out!”

By September 2018, Apple had initiated a petition before the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board to cancel Social Technologies’ MEMOJI registration. Social Technologies responded by filing a lawsuit for trademark infringement and seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement and validity of its MEMOJI registration. When both parties moved for summary judgement, the district court determined that Social Technologies had not engaged in bona fide use of the MEMOJI trademark and held that Apple was entitled to cancellation of Social Technologies’ registration. Social Technologies appealed.

Reviewing the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo, the Ninth Circuit framed its analysis under the Lanham Act’s use in commerce requirement, which requires bona fide use of a mark in the ordinary course of trade and “not merely to reserve a right” in the mark. The issue on appeal was whether Social Technologies used the MEMOJI mark in commerce in such a manner to render its trademark registration valid.

The Ninth Circuit then explained the Lanham Act’s use in commerce requirement, which requires “use of a genuine character” determined by the totality of the circumstances (including “non-sales [...]

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Ninth Circuit Still Signals Shift in Arbitration Landscape for Non-Signatories

In a decision substantively the same as the now-withdrawn opinion entered on January 20, 2021, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit once again affirmed denial of a non-signatory’s motion to compel arbitration. Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya LLP, Case No.18-35573 (9th Cir. July 7, 2021) (Nelson, J.) (Bea, J., dissenting).

Following the June 8, 2021, withdrawal of its original decision, the Ninth Circuit again found that federal rather than Indian law should apply, this time focusing on the New York Convention and its implementing legislation’s emphasis on “the need for uniformity in the application of international arbitration agreements.” The Court further reasoned that it applies “federal substantive law” in cases involving the New York Convention when determining the arbitrability of federal claims by or against non-signatories. The Ninth Circuit then pointed back to GE Energy, the decision that prompted the initial remand, stating that although the Supreme Court of the United States “specifically concluded” that “the New York Convention does not conflict with enforcement of arbitration agreements by non-signatories under domestic-law equitable estoppel doctrines,” the Supreme Court did not determine whether GE Energy could enforce the arbitration clauses under principles of equitable estoppel, nor did it determine which body of law governed.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that while “a non-signatory could compel arbitration in a New York Convention case,” the facts presented here did not implicate the agreement that contained the arbitration clause. Clarifying its prior holding, the Ninth Circuit stated explicitly that the claims here had “no relationship with the partnership deed containing the arbitration agreement at issue in this appeal.” Repeating its earlier ruling, the Court reasoned that the subject matter of the dispute was not intertwined and thus the doctrine of equitable estoppel was not applicable.

Judge Carlos Bea again dissented on the choice of law issue. Although most of his opinion was similar to his prior analysis, Judge Bea indicated that he disagreed with the majority’s notion that federal substantive law is applied in cases involving the arbitrability of federal claims by or against non-signatories under the New York Convention. Judge Bea argued that there was no basis to make such a choice of law analysis for a motion to compel dependent on whether the plaintiff’s claims sounded in federal or state law, and that whether an arbitration agreement is otherwise governed by the New York Convention is irrelevant to the choice of law for an equitable estoppel claim.

Practice Note: The Setty decision appears to demonstrate a shift in the US arbitration landscape, and parties may begin to see an increase in the use of equitable estoppel theories by non-signatories. Practitioners should keep in mind that non-signatories may use this theory affirmatively to attempt to compel arbitration, but it may open the door to enforcement of an obligation to arbitrate against non-signatories as well.




Ninth Circuit Withdraws Opinion That Signaled Shift in Arbitration Landscape for Non-Signatories

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an order withdrawing its opinion in Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya, where the Court affirmed the denial of a non-signatory’s bid to arbitrate its claims for trademark infringement against one of the signatories to a contract under Indian law. Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya LLP, Case No. No. 18-35573 (9th Cir. June 8, 2021). The Court did not provide any reasoning for the withdrawal but indicated that a new disposition will be filed in due course.




Supreme Court to Consider Fraudulent Intent in Copyright Registration

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to consider whether a copyright registration accurately reflecting a work can nevertheless be invalidated without fraudulent intent. Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, Case No. 20-915 (Supr. Ct. June 1, 2021) (certiorari granted)

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court decision awarding Unicolors a copyright infringement award of $800,000 as well as attorneys’ fees. The Ninth Circuit ruled that although Unicolors improperly registered the copyright (in a fabric design) as part of a “single-unit registration,” the district court was wrong to find intent to defraud the US Copyright Office—a requirement for invalidating a registration.

The issue presented is:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit erred in breaking with its own prior precedent and the findings of other circuits and the Copyright Office in holding that 17 U.S.C. § 411 requires referral to the Copyright Office where there is no indicia of fraud or material error as to the work at issue in the subject copyright registration.




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